ABC's Pan Am took to the skies Sunday night and, though there was a bit of turbulence midair, there is hope for a smoother ride going forward.
Let's get this fact out of the way up front: Pan Am is not Mad Men. The comparison was inevitable.
But it's not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike NBC's widely panned The Playboy Club, Pan Am does not pretend to be high art. It's bubblegum. It's a glossy, well researched, and fairly well-executed piece of nostalgic candy.
Whereas Mad Men stews in morose melodrama, Pan Am serves up a cheery slice of retro pop culture pie. Mad Men mocks the antiquated mores of the past, while Pan Am romanticizes them.
The heavily stylized show does, however, struggle to find its tone. It seems more interested in surfaces than emotional interiors. While the visuals are at times dazzling -- and at times laughably idyllic -- an emotional core is needed if the show hopes to have any staying power.
The pilot opens in an ode to the glory days of the jet setters. It's travel porn. The camera pans across a sleek new Clipper, the stewardesses march through the airport like the Radio City Rockettes, and the plane's takeoff is underscored by absurdly triumphant music. Everything is shiny, sundrenched, and perfect.
Of course, behind the shiny veneer, each of Pan Am's gorgeous stewardesses is hiding a secret.
After fleeing from her husband-to-be on their wedding day, Laura (Margo Robbie) runs off with her rebellious sister Kate (Kelli Garner) to become a Pan Am stewardess. Little does she know that she will become the face of the company after a photographer from Life magazine snaps a candid shot of her in the new blue outfit.
This doesn't sit well with her jealous sister Kate, who has a secret of her own: she's working undercover for the CIA.
Poor Collette (Karine Varnasse). The French beauty finds out mid-flight that her new love interest is actually married with children.
Yet, the most engaging -- and least-featured -- is Maggie, played by the doe-eyed Christina Ricci. A stewardess with a working knowledge of Marxism, she sees through the conspicuous consumption in her job, but revels in the chance to travel the world.
And then there's Bridget Pierce (Annabelle Wallis). Did the CIA or some foreign spy service have something to do with her mysterious disappearance? Who is Bridget? We still don't really know.
The writers insert some history amidst the soapy fluff. A trip back to the Bay of Pigs leads to one of the episode's cheesier plotlines as hunky pilot Dean (Mike Vogel) has his marriage proposal turned down by the cagey Pierce.
ABC reportedly threw down $10 million for the pilot episode, and one would think with that kind of money you could buy some better CG. The show feels like a big-budget film -- Catch Me If You Can, for instance -- until the small-screen CG reminds you that this was made for television.
After the show's premiere Sunday night, many took to Twitter to share their mostly mixed reviews. One, Adam Barken, tweeted:
My wife says every scene in PAN AM is like the last scene of a big movie - but without the buildup or character development.
I couldn't agree more.
But, perhaps this is intended. Perhaps the writers have built the glossy veneer as a set-up -- a way to pierce through the retro mystique later in the season.
Lead by Ricci, the strong cast will need some even stronger writing to take this show from pure fluff to solid gold.
It's glossy, but not quite polished.
Pan Am promises to take us places -- both across the oceans and back in time. If it can deliver on the escapist entertainment and bolster that with strong writing, the show may just take off.
What are the other reviewers saying?
'Pan Am' seems most intent on making the idea of the '60s and stewardesses and 'the jet age' more glamorous than real. It has neither the exactitude of the times nor the talent of the writers to get at the issues, a la 'Mad Men', that illuminate the issues of the day. It only has the magazine ad dreams of the times -- girls don't have to be their mothers; they can also be modern women who get weighed at work and dumped at 32 for being too old. -- Tim Goodman, The Hollywood Reporter
As a premise 'Pan Am' sounds foolhardy, a knockoff that can't possibly live up to the original, like a network trying to copy 'The Sopranos' with a series about a ring of car thieves in Indianapolis ... -- Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times
Two new dramas that may-may-have potential are ABC's' Pan Am' and NBC's 'The Playboy Club,' even though they can't, by any stretch, be called original. Both are the direct spawn of 'Mad Men'-shows set in the early sixties that aim at conveying the changes of the era which led us to where we are now. The new shows are more concerned with hitting their marks and getting the sociology right than with character, but 'Pan Am' has a bit of style to it, and a note of darkness, and the formula might just work. -- Nancy Franklin, The New Yorker
Did you tune in to the Pan Am premiere? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.